Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Building confidence

In response to a comment from 2nd year physics grad student Becky:

Random question - You have very good confidence in your abilities. Some of your commenters seem to take offense at this, but I think it's a highly useful trait to have as a scientist.

I, on the other hand, feel like a moron everyday. How did you develop such a positive attitude about yourself?

Here are my thoughts on this. But I'm going to start with instructions to mentors, and then move onto instructions for students.

3 things for mentors to do:

1. Encourage small accomplishments early and often

The people who trained me early on showed me how to do everything. They were patient with letting me practice until I got things right, but they supervised me until that happened. And then they said, "Just like that. Good job."


It doesn't take that much to see if the student is following directions and executing steps correctly, but it really helps to give that confirmation and validation that the effort is appreciated and noticed.

2. Give independence in gradually increasing amounts

I was allowed to be pretty independent in the lab pretty early on. I loved this about lab.

I grew up with very little personal freedom and really controlling parents. According to my parents, I was Stupid, I was Lazy, I was Ugly, I was Fat, etc. I was always scrambling trying to please them, which I would later realize was impossible anyway.

In school, I was Student. It was a role we all played. Show up, take notes, maybe ask a question if you're feeling brave. Go home, do homework, pass tests. Check.

In lab, I was suddenly Person. I was treated more like an adult than ever before, and I was amazed. I could come in, do my thing, maybe show someone my results before I left, maybe even get a "Good job!" and then go home. Eventually I would finish whatever I was doing and be taught a new task.

I liked the idea that eventually I would learn enough tasks to be able to work longer and longer without having to ask anyone anything.

I realized later that this was probably pretty unusual. I worked in small labs and big labs, but the people who trained me were, with no exceptions I can think of, both remarkably rigorous and extremely generous with their time.

Nowadays, I don't see this very often. I regularly see poorly trained postdocs training students poorly; I regularly see grad students flailing in the wind because they have no one to ask and no idea what they're doing. It's no wonder grad students lack confidence in that kind of environment.

Trust me when I tell you, the good labs are NOT like that. They're hard to find, though.

3. Quit biting their heads off

Recently, I've been involved in mentoring students in other labs. These students find me, and maybe they don't even tell their advisor I've been helping them out. In every single case, at some point their advisor blows up at them.

The reasons an advisor might yell at a student include but are not limited to:

-advisor is crazy/stressed out and it has nothing to do with the student

-advisor made a mistake but would rather lash out than admit it

-student was flaky (irresponsible and/or passive-aggressive rebellion)

-student was willfully disobedient (some PIs can deal with this when it is justified; some can't no matter what the reason)

-student made a mistake on something important

But it's really only the last one that I want to talk about today.

Students often make one major mistake: they don't always ask for help. This pisses us older folks off, because we interpret it as meaning any or all of the following:

-student is arrogant and doesn't think we know anything worthwhile

-student is embarrassed to be asking, which means we're too intimidating (not a good thing, we blame ourselves when this happens)

-student is so clueless that they don't even know to ask, which means we've been sucky mentors (not a good thing, we blame ourselves when this happens)

Sometimes it's really really hard to keep your calm when a student makes an otherwise totally avoidable mistake. Especially if they could have asked you and didn't, and you're not sure why.

However. In our role as mentors, we have to recognize that Every. Single. Time. you blow up at a student, especially a new student, it is probably our own fault.

I'll say that again. It's YOUR fault, mentors. YOU NEED TO KEEP YOUR CALM. They're just students, they can't really be expected to know as much as you. Get it?

Now, having said that, I've had students who were such bleeping hothouse flowers they couldn't take any kind of criticism. No matter how gently put, if I told them they did something wrong or needed to do something over again, they would just freeze up.

I've tried "Here, you want to avoid that because of XYZ, try it this way." Nope, too sensitive for that.

Or, "Okay, so that's not quite right, next time I'll show you what I want you to do differently." Nope, too sensitive for that too.

You know, they tend to be the straight-A types. I don't know what to do with them. I tend to think science is not the place for people who can't deal with making mistakes and getting honest feedback on their performance.

3 things for students to do:

1. Buck up, cowgirl

If you're not used to criticism, get used to it. Those of us who played on sports teams or did any kind of competitive performing arts are used to being given feedback with few frills attached.

The trick is, and I'm going to say this in all caps, IT'S NOT PERSONAL.

Okay? Get it? It's about your work, it's not about you. We're not saying you're not good enough, we're saying "Here's how you do it."

It's instruction, it's feedback, it's not that we think you're stupid or incapable.

The good mentors know that you can't possibly know these things unless we teach you, show you, and let you practice and ask questions. That's our job. Your job is to keep trying until you get it right. Even if we tell you over and over all the little ways you can improve. We really do want to see you succeed at everything you do. But we understand that research involves an awful lot of falling on your face. All of us were grad students once, too.

2. If you're not sure, Look it up, and Then Ask

Eventually, we want you to get to the point where you can look things up and then decide for yourself whether the answers you find in the literature or via google make any sense or not. Half the time, they're probably wrong. But by the time you're 2 years into grad school, you should be able to look things up on your own without too much effort (thank you, internet).

If for some reason you can't find what you need in the lab protocol book or on the internet, or if what you find there makes no sense, then ask us.

If you don't take notes, or don't try to look things up, or don't ask in an intelligent way ("Hey, I'm trying to do X, I'm not sure how to do Y, would you have time to show me? When would be a good time?") eventually we will get annoyed with your laziness and disrespect and we will treat you the same way in return.

Some of us will give you references instead of helping you because we can't stand talking to disrespectful, ungrateful students.

Others will just plain talk down to you. There are two ways of dealing with those types.

1) Look things up on your own (and find other people to ask)
2) Get upset.

I recommend choice #1. People still talk to me like I'm an idiot on a regular basis. And eventually I realized that those types talk to everyone that way. I realized it's not me, it's them. Use this as your mantra when you're being treated like a moron.

Note: students usually feel like morons when they're treated like morons. It may have nothing whatsoever to do with your actual abilities and everything to do with the people around you being jerks.

3. Whatever you do, don't guess

Nothing pisses us off more than when students are too lazy to either look things up or ask.

The central principle of research, as far as I can tell, is knowing what you know and what you don't knowm, and then figuring out how to fill in what you don't know.

This is true at all levels. PIs regularly make assumptions about what we know, and we're wrong All. The Time. The same is true for students. You might think you know more than you do, but more often than not, students think they know nothing. You are not alone in feeling that way.

I always say it's like learning a foreign language. At the beginning, you work on comprehension. You can read the words, you know what they mean. You hear the words, you know what they mean. But you're shy about speaking the language yourself. You don't have the accent. It's harder to use it than to understand it.

So yeah, it's rough at first, doing your own research independently. You will make mistakes. You will feel uncertain. Probably for a long time. That's OK. Your data should be telling you if you're on the right track.

If nothing is working, it helps to find people to mentor you (not in the vague MentorNet sense of the word). I mean people who are willing to answer your day-to-day questions about how to do things.

Later on, even if my questions were just, "I'm going to try this now, do you think it will work?" knowing full well that their answers might have no correlation with the outcome.

It still gave me more confidence, just to have said out loud "I'm going to try this now." And sometimes I got good advice that way before I made stupid mistakes. As you go along, you'll find the ratio of times they're right: times you're right shifts. At the beginning, they're usually right and you're usually wrong. By the end, you'll be right more often than they are.

I was lucky that I had people like this for most of my career, who were willing to let me bounce ideas off them, and willing to admit it when I was right (though not always).

When I reached the end of grad school and I didn't have anyone to help me in the lab, I realized I didn't need it anymore. Not in that lab, anyway, where I actually knew how to do everything our lab did (!). Sometimes you don't realize this until a new person joins and you start seeing them making all the same mistakes you made.

And if you become a postdoc, or start a new job, or a new project, the cycle starts over again. You ask stupid questions for a while, you feel bad having to ask but now you know it's part of the process. And then you go do some experiments on your own. Training wheels are off.

Eventually, you realize that when you're really doing research, NO ONE KNOWS THE RIGHT ANSWER. There an incredible freedom in that. All you can do, all anyone can do, is come up with a hypothesis, and then test it. But that's not the same as guessing.

You'll know you're there when you can design, execute and interpret experiments on your own. Even if someone tells you, before you even start doing it, that you're doing it all wrong. When you do it anyway, that's confidence. Even if you're not always right. Do the test.

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At 9:07 PM, Blogger PUI prof said...

Woah. Did you just read my blog? Insert Faculty in for student...

At 1:21 AM, Blogger Neuropharma said...

Thank you for this post. I always had confidence issues that sometimes made me cry. I really thought I was stupid for asking a lot and/or doing things that turned out to be wrong. Thankfully, my advisor understands, and says it's part of the "learning curve." And yes, when a new grad student joined our lab, I watched the same training and learning process go on to be able to help. I was sure to try to encourage him and remind him I was exactly like him and made exactly the same mistakes, and the only reason I can do it better that him now is because I was in the lab for a longer time while he had just joined. Now, as my defense is approaching, I have other fears. I'm afraid of looking stupid in front of the committee not being able to answer their questions.

At 6:46 AM, Blogger Interdisciplinary Introspective said...

Thanks for this post. I wish I could get my advisor to read this. For the most part, he's actually pretty good. He praises us often, and I've never walked in his office and been turned away when I've had a question. He also never condescends. However, he's not a particularly good teacher. The few times he's actually shown me how to do something, he literally showed me, rather than instructed me how to do it myself. He continues to greatly underestimate the time it should take me to do things. And he's painfully afraid of confrontation, so he won't get on students who are acting irresponsibly in lab, or even correct us when we're doing something wrong. It's gotten to the point where I almost don't believe his praise because it's never balanced with constructive criticism. And I just can't believe that I do everything correctly. I know I've made, and continue to make, a lot of mistakes.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

PUI - nope, hadn't seen that. Maybe the stars just aligned that way this week.

Did any of my advice help at all? Maybe not so relevant to your situation.


Everybody has that same fear about the thesis defense. Trust me when I tell you, there are two solutions to this.
1. Have a last committee meeting very close to your actual defense. Then if you're not prepared, they will give you more feedback about what you need to do before the defense, and more time to be prepared.
2. Remember that YOU ARE THE WORLD EXPERT on your project. NOBODY knows as much about it as you do.
3. Finally, project enthusiasm when you talk about your work. Have fun giving your final presentation. The defense is really not a defense, it's more like a finale concert. It's for show.

II- Not a good teacher, eh? That's pretty common, and also pretty subjective. He's probably just showing you because that's what works for his learning style. Surprisingly little pedagogy is taught in higher education (none, actually).

Personally, I think demonstrations are often better than descriptions alone, but it helps to have both at the same time whenever possible.

If that's missing, then you should (and probably do) ask questions during the demonstration. "Okay, so what did you do there? Why did you do it that way? Is there some reason you have to do it that way? Is it okay if I do it this other way?" etc.

I think if he's positive, just take it as it is. Wanting constructive criticism- I think I know what you mean about this. I think it means what you said- he's not a great teacher.

It doesn't make his praise meaningless, though. I have a mentor like this. She is always encouraging, but not good at advising. You should appreciate having that kind of positive feedback, but get advice from other people instead.

If you know he's not a great teacher, there are two things to keep in mind:
a) it's not the best use of your time to ask him, so ask someone else


b) he may appreciate being asked and/or assume that if you don't ask, you're not working (or be relieved that you're becoming more independent).

At 2:37 PM, Blogger FUG said...

This is good advice for me in general. Thanks.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger Samia said...

Thanks for this!

At 6:00 PM, Blogger Becky said...

Interesting advice. I think that perhaps I'm just coming from a different place than you are, though.

I don't usually mind asking questions or taking feedback or looking things up, so I'm pretty sure I'm just out of my league here.

For example, I was talking to another student about classes and they said something to the effect of, "Oh, who doesn't know topology" I didn't even know that I was supposed to know anything about topology. It was an upper level mathematics course with four or five prereqs at my previous university. No one in my department took anything even close to it.

But here, it's just expected. Hence, I feel like a moron.

So, probably not just a confidence issue for me.

I definitely think mentors should read this post though. Thanks for responding.

At 6:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

every PI I've ever worked for or known through collaborations or from hearing about from my postdoc/student friends, has been the sort to often "blow up" at students. I've not known a non-melodramatic PI. I'm beginning to think it's a PI job requirement to have an unstable temperament. Every time our PI blows up at us, we just roll our eyes. sometimes the more CONFIDENT student or postdoc (since this post is about confidence) will let loose at the PI and blow up back at him. This can get very ugly. it has led to postdocs getting fired because they stood up for themselves when they were correct or in the right. In other words, the confident postdocs are the ones who get fired because the PI can't handle being told when he's wrong.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Becky, I think that would fall under the "look it up" category. But in your case, if you feel you need to learn topology for what you're going to do*, then see about taking the class or getting a tutor or whatever it takes to learn yourself some topologies.

*note that competitive types lie ALL THE TIME about what they know, how hard they're working, and what you really need. I love the tell the story about how the kids in my grad program were always bragging about how many publications they had and comparing notes on who had published the most so far, etc. And you know what? The ones who did that were ASSHOLES. And they're going to have a hard time getting jobs because of their extreme arrogance in spite of their CVs. So don't let those people fool you into thinking you're behind, ok?

Anon 6:34,

every PI? hmm.

note that there's also a big difference between confidence and pigheadedness/arrogance.

when I was younger, I was confident that if I yelled loud enough, I would eventually win (I did, mostly, but it wasn't fun for anybody). Now I'm confident that I've learned a little bit about when yelling has to be done, and when it's better to negotiate. It's usually better to make firm statements than to yell.

I do think you have to be able to tolerate the occasional blower-upper if you're going to stay in academentia. Sensitive types tend to find it too uncomfortable and run way to places where politeness is the policy.

Personally, I hate phonies, so I guess if those were the only two choices, I'd take the crazy yellers any day over the passive-aggressive fakers who are super polite and then go talk shit about you behind your back. Any day.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger daisy mae said...

thank you SO MUCH for this post. i'm just starting my second year of graduate school in the biological sciences, and having been a chemist (physical and bioorganic) my entire undergraduate career, i've felt most of the last year feeling like i've been dumped in the deep end. my adviser just assumes that i know everything ever published on my work, and doesn't understand why i still don't have the results 'for a project that should have taken 6 weeks'. frustrating.

however, i've sought out other mentors who are critical thinkers and capable of giving feedback on my work and progress (hell - we're all getting together on monday with my PI for a big committee meeting - fun times will ensue!) and they have ALL said that no matter who you are, or how intelligent you are, your PI will always think you don't know everything you should. although i will say that when i DO stand up to my PI (respectfully, but forcefully) he will re-consider what he's doing. although i've actually started carrying a small digital recorder, and when we meet, i let him know that i will be recording everything so that we're both clear on what i should be doing. it's avoided a lot of trouble.

you have essentially articulated everything i've been feeling and trying to process over the last few months....

At 2:09 PM, Blogger Balancing Act said...

This is an ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS post! Thanks so much for it!

I have confidence problems. My advisor does not follow your advice well. When I won an award and said something about it, one time he said nothing and the other time he said "You might as well toot your own horn because no one else will" or something to that effect. I assumed he just meant nobody praises someone else (or more importantly him), but then the undermining lab-mate expressed surprise at my interpretation and said she would think it was more personal. But then again, she was pissed off at me for getting that particular award. Overall, no praise of accomplishments from him.

He does allow independence. We've been encouraged to come up with our own projects. Unfortunately, when I have broached my own, he's usually shot them down. (However, sometimes they return as his idea. Honestly, I think the idea gets planted in his subconscious, he mulls it over for a time, and months later it pops out.)

He's learned not to bite my head off because I cry. Even for no reason at all and despising myself while I try very hard not to, I cry. I am an adult and a mother and I cannot manage to control those stupid faucets at my eyes.

As for following your advice myself, I have learned over my graduate career that it is not personal. And I love the PHD comic that says something to the effect of your advisor doesn't think you're stupid because your advisory doesn't think of you at all. On occasion it has been my mantra.

As for asking, my advisor happened to walk in my office a month or so ago and say "let's make an appointment to discuss your research" to which I replied "I have a problem" or something like that. I discussed the problem and he had advice and then told me not to waste time and just ask for help. My response is that as a 6th year grad student doing this research the whole time, I should be able to troubleshoot errors without coming to him. I actually hadn't done much troubleshooting at that moment because he walked in minutes after I discovered it, but it worked out that time. Unfortunately, usually when one of us ask for help, he dismisses us without actually helping or at the very least we leave his help feeling like idiots.

Okay, back to work, but this was a lovely distraction for a few minutes.

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous ennuiherself said...

Great post! Even though I made it through grad school and successfully landed a postdoc, I still struggle with confidence issues.

The single greatest issue I had to address in grad school is that science is not personal (er, usually). A suggestion or even outright criticism of an experiment, analysis, paper, etc. is not necessarily a direct criticism of me. It took a long time to realize that when my advisor or committee made a suggestion, it was to help me; they weren't out to get me after all.


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